That belief is supported by a new international study by researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China and the City University of Hong Kong, which found that social networks including Facebook and its Chinese equivalents can help students and educators in a variety of ways. With up to 90% of college students now using Facebook or similar sites, the study (published in the International Journal of Networking and Virtual Organizations) said social networks generally empower students to take charge of their own education.
Interestingly, social networks do this in part by enabling students to form more social relationships than they might otherwise, including more marginal connections: "The typical social network pattern on Facebook is often in a core-periphery mode: an individual has close relationships with core friends and weak relationships with many others." As a result, "Online social networking applications such as Facebook offer an efficient platform for college students' socialization by expanding their network scope and maintaining close relationships."
Among other things, social networks allow students to connect with faculty and other students in an informal way that might have been awkward or just impossible in what I would term "real" (i.e. face-to-face) relations. This, in turn, allows them to make comments, share knowledge, set up special groups for shared interests or projects, and engage their teachers and professors more closely. By helping them stay in touch with peers and professors after they leave school, social networks can also be valuable tools for advancing in the competitive, network-based world of academia.
And that's just the beginning: it turns out social networks can also help aspiring students get money for college. In April I wrote about an app under development for the Clinton Global Initiative University, MTV, and the College Board, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which will comb a user's Facebook profile to find possible opportunities for securing scholarships to pay for college, based on interests, activities, location, and so on. After analyzing the profile, the app will present a tailored list of relevant financial aid opportunities; it will also provide step-by-step tutorials on important processes, like how to fill out the FAFSA form, and help users decide how much debt they can afford to assume. It also lets them tap their network of Facebook friends for expertise and guidance about navigating the financial aid application process.
Major philanthropic organizations are focusing on simplifying and streamlining the process of obtaining financial aid for higher education -- and unsurprisingly they're turning to social media as a key channel for reaching young people hoping to attend college. Thus the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also recently invested $2 million in Inigral, which enables school administrators to create official, exclusive sub-networks within Facebook for their students and alumni, to bring its service to schools with Pell Grant scholars.